Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would seek to confirm a Supreme Court justice if a vacancy opened next year despite vowing during President Barack Obama's presidency to block any election-year appointments.
"Oh, we'd fill it," McConnell said Tuesday at a Chamber of Commerce event in Paducah, Kentucky, in response to a question about what his position would be if one of the nine justices died next year. The comments were broadcast by WPSD-TV, an NBC affiliate.
Two justices currently on the bench — both appointed by Democrats — are in their 80s: Justice Stephen Breyer, 80, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 86, who has had recent problems with her health. Justice Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving justice on the bench and its most conservative member, is 70.
McConnell's comment prompted accusations of hypocrisy. In 2016, shortly after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, McConnell said that the Senate would take no action on filling the vacancy he left regardless of which judge Obama nominated.
At the time, McConnell cited what he said was a Senate tradition. In a statement released about an hour after Scalia's death, McConnell wrote: "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the top Senate Democrat, took to Twitter, writing that "Senator McConnell is a hypocrite" but noting that the comment is "no surprise."
"McConnell lives for GOP judges because he knows the GOP agenda is so radical & unpopular they can only achieve it in courts," Schumer wrote.
McConnell has prioritized the swift confirmation of federal judges during President Donald Trump's time in office, and has already shepherded the confirmation of two justices to the top court.
The addition of Trump's two picks, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, solidified a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the Senate GOP celebrated the confirmation of Trump's 100th judicial nominee.
McConnell has fended off charges of hypocrisy, saying that the difference between 2016 and 2020 is that in the previous cycle, different parties controlled the Senate and the White House. Ahead of the 2020 election there is no such divided government.
"You have to go back to 1880 to find the last time a vacancy created in a presidential election year on the Supreme Court was confirmed by a Senate of a different party than the president," McConnell said in an October interview on "Fox News Sunday."
In 2016, McConnell occasionally cited divided government as a reason for not confirming Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee, although he generally said his decision was based on giving voters an opportunity to have a say in the next justice.
A McConnell spokesperson referred CNBC to a tweet from David Popp, McConnell's communications director.
"McConnell has conveyed this reasoning several times — the decision not to consider Garland's nomination was because the Senate was held by a different party than the president leading into an election. His answer Tuesday is consistent with that claim," Popp wrote.